“Self-care” is the motivating buzzword that keeps on buzzing, used to market everything from face masks to the latest fitness craze. Under its influence, we’re relentlessly poked and prodded with reminders of ways to get better, stronger, faster, smarter, prettier, ad infinitum.
But what about our inner selves? We might look great on the outside, but all the planks in the world can’t give us the inner strength we need to give us hope and get us through tough times. Enter spiritual health and practice.
What is a spiritual practice?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “spirit” has many definitions, with the most relevant to this article being the “animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms.” As such, a spiritual practice is something you do on a regular basis to access your own personal concept of spirit — or a sense of connection to yourself or the world — whether you find it on an altar of your own making, in nature, at a nightclub, in a mosque, in a synagogue, or in a church, etc.
But given all that we’ve got going on, is it actually beneficial to make space in our chaotic lives to develop a relationship with our intuition, higher power, God, the Goddess, Allah, G-d, Buddha, or whomever or whatever we might feel compelled to call upon to work on our spiritual lives? Does having a spiritual life even make sense? And if the answer is yes, then why does this aspect of our lives so often go neglected in favor of shallower pursuits of self-improvement?
Why you may not have a spiritual practice — yet
The Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a Zen priest and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, says one common reason people find spiritual enrichment so easy to blow off is that the benefits of a spiritual practice aren’t tangible and may take time to be revealed. “It goes deeper, and there’s not like an instant payoff,” she says. “There’s not somebody that’s just going to say, ‘Now you have a great butt! Now you have a six-pack!’ It’s intangible, so it requires what some people may call faith, patience, curiosity, and an openness to allow something that is far more intangible than most forms of self-care we have evidence of.”
Another possible reason some may balk at the idea of spiritual development is its association with organized religion, but spirituality and religion are, in fact, two different concepts. “Spirituality tends to be more of an individual pursuit. In organized religion, there are rules to follow, and it tends to be much more rigid,” explains Tamara Goldsby, Ph.D., a research psychologist with the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego who studies the impact of meditation on well-being. “If one had a negative experience with organized religion in the past, one may generalize all spiritual experiences to this when, in reality, spirituality is quite different from organized religion. If one believes that the mind, body, and spirit are all connected, then it makes sense for us to integrate a regular spiritual practice, in whatever form suits us, into our lives. One does not need to follow an ideology per se to be spiritual. Connecting to a source greater than ourselves can be a powerful experience, and it reminds us that we are all part of a bigger picture.”
Why people monitor their spiritual health
As many as 30 percent of people identify as spiritual but not religious, says williams. A spiritual practice can give us a sense of agency over our own lives. “No matter what the practice, there is a very deep agreement that we make with ourselves when we have a spiritual practice,” says williams. “We take a sense of navigating our lives into our own hands rather than leaving it to chance, whether that’s by way of our relationship with a higher power through a regular, consistent practice. This agreement with ourselves is one of the most powerful things that we can do to have a sense of agency in our lives.”
How has spirituality fallen so far off our collective radar? “I think because 40 years ago, in the positive efforts and the good attempt to be inclusive, we as a society took religion out of the public square, and with it went the spiritual baby with the bathwater,” says Lisa Jane Miller, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and education and the founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, and the author of The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life. “We need to basically have a spiritual renaissance. We need to see each other as sacred, with ultimate dignity as souls on Earth, and we need to know each other as spiritual beings, to love and care for ourselves so that we awaken our spiritual brain and use what I call our awakened awareness.”
The benefits of spiritual health
Miller and a group of researchers have scientifically examined the benefits of cultivating one’s spiritual side, referencing a 25-year-long rigorously peer-reviewed study with findings that show how spirituality is “foundational” to recovery, moving through depression, moving through trauma with post-traumatic spiritual growth, and even potentially girding against subsequent depression. One MRI study her team conducted, published in JAMA Psychiatry and referenced in her book, revealed that individuals at higher risk for depressive illness who prioritized their spiritual lives actually had a thicker cortex in certain parts of the brain, and might be more resilient to the development of a major depressive illness.
In another study, her team examined the brains of those who told stories of feeling a deep connection to the universe, or “spirit.” Regardless of their religious or spiritual affiliation, each subject’s brain activated the same four neural correlates, or brain activity that produces a specific experience. She equates the first “loop” as something she calls “mindfulness plus,” or a spiritually driven awareness of being connected to love, guidance, and not being alone, adding that it activates the “bonding network,” or the same feeling as being held by someone caring for you.
The second neural loop shifts your perception of the world from a narrow one to the big picture. “Instead of being obsessed through a very narrow bowling-alley perception — I’ve got to get this thing I wanted, I’ve got to get that job, I’ve got to get that promotion, I’ve got to get into that graduate school — we shift, and we see a far broader range of life, an abundant life. That’s synchronicity,” Miller explains.
The third lends the recognition that we are all “whitecaps coming from one ocean,” Miller says. “We are magnificently synced and beautifully diverse, and all over different GPS coordinates.”
Miller describes the fourth neural loop as a greater sense of interconnectedness. “I could be walled-off lonely for months in my Covid apartment, and that isolation and depression is real, and still I sense, whether it’s through meditation, or prayer, or nature, I am part of the oneness.”
Interested in exploring your own spirituality? Here’s how to begin
Walk in nature
Something as simple and easy as a short walk in nature for 20 minutes can reboot the spiritual capacity of the brain, says Miller. “The very same wavelength of the awakened brain is a wavelength shared by nature; it’s alpha,” she explains. “Alpha is the wavelength from the Earth’s crust. We awaken the brain when we walk through nature.” But, Miller explains, it’s not enough to just mindlessly saunter by some trees — try to be present and engage with what you experience to feel the benefits. “Don’t just notice how pretty it is,” she says. “Think about the human life cycle. Listen when birds or animals are trying to show you something, and try to give them something back. Try to be in relationship with them.”
Research what resonates for you
When exploring spirituality, williams says she encourages people to “start dating” rather than feeling like they have to commit to one type of practice. Of her own experience, she says: “Be flexible and open. I represent one of the sort of anomalies. I didn’t follow the path of what might have ordinarily been expected out of a Black woman in America. It would be Christianity first, Islam second, maybe Judaism.”
Figuring out what type of spiritual practice works for you will be a process of trial and error. Just be willing to listen to your inner self, which in and of itself is its own kind of practice, and to explore what it is that you feel called to, williams says. “We’re very unique in terms of the structure of our internal life, and what responds to it is in many ways like love,” she explains. “We will respond to things that are beyond logic. People will explain it logically, but at the end of the day, what fulfills us and gives us gratification by way of our spiritual practice is completely ineffable. It’s beyond tangible. It’s not something that is quickly situated in a set of rules and instructions, which is why we are seeing an [upwelling] in the number of people that consider themselves spiritual but not religious. We actually want to have a connection; we don’t want to just slip on the spiritual hand-me-downs of our families and in our lineage. Which is why we should go ‘date.’ When something feels like it calls you, we can both respond, and we can say maybe this isn’t it, giving ourselves a little bit of room for questions not answers.”
Work your spiritual practice into your day
For your spiritual practice to build, consistency is key, says williams. “We have so many distractions, and it is easy for it to evade us,” she says. “Getting our attention to turn to something that has some intangible gratification for us, having a practice and being able to apply our own will to show up for it and to give it some time is one of those ways we can build it and start to actually feel the experience.” She recommends taking your contemplation or spiritual practice time in “small bites,” even if it’s just five or 10 minutes a day. Anchoring your practice to another routine part of your day (right when you get up, after you brush your teeth or work out) can help it stick. “The truth is we are habituated unconsciously to all sorts of other things; we’re habituated to watching Netflix, being on our computers, touching our phones all the time. If we want to have some kind of a balance to the other things that draw our attention and distract us in our lives, and we want to give room for the new lover that is our spiritual practice, we have to actually commit some time to it,” she says.
Change the conversation
Miller says, in exploring your spirituality, it helps to “change your conversation with life” by paying attention to signs and signals that present themselves to you. She explains: “Don’t ask what do I want and how do I get it, but rather ask what is life showing me, what can I learn and give back?” says Miller. “Be open to the dharma that we’re all on this journey. You know how people say to look for signs? People show up, books show up, and we are given gifts — oftentimes through multiple cultures, multiple faith traditions, spiritual and religious practices. Who comes to you? Why did this person speak with me now, just as I started wondering about this and that? Be open to synchronicity and the symbols in life that shift your way forward. Life is not a drop-down menu from which to order what we want. Life is an exquisite journey through which we discover a deeper nature and become more loving and become far more aware of one another.”
Goldsby says spirituality is definitely a journey, and it may take quite a while for someone to find a belief system that resonates for them — but the benefits make it worthwhile. “Think of this as a long-distance run instead of a sprint,” she says. “Important self-discovery takes time, so readers need to be patient with themselves and the process.”
Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a multifaceted storyteller whose work has been featured in The Cut, NBC News Better, Time Out New York, Medium, and The Week. Follow her on Twitter @soapboxdirty.
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